Steelers dominate early and then hold off Titans in showdown of unbeaten NFL powers
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Pittsburgh Steelers stand alone as the AFC’s last undefeated team thanks to a dominant start and a bit of late luck.
Ben Roethlisberger threw two touchdown passes to Diontae Johnson, and the Steelers remained perfect by holding off Tennessee for a 27-24 victory Sunday in a game postponed three weeks after the Titans came down with the NFL’s first COVID-19 outbreak of the season.
In a matchup of the conference’s two remaining unbeaten teams, the Titans rallied by scoring 17 straight after being smothered in the first half.
They failed to complete the comeback when Stephen Gostkowski, who made a 51-yarder earlier, missed wide right from 45 yards with 14 seconds left, sending the Steelers running around the field in celebration and stunning the Titans (5-1). Even Roethlisberger appeared shocked the four-time Pro Bowl kicker missed.
“Oh, man. I mean, I was surprised he missed it,” Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “Our idea was to go into overtime. A good kicker. It’s tough. It’s good for us.”
The Steelers improved to 6-0 for their best start since 1978, when Pittsburgh won its first seven on the way to the Super Bowl. This was just the fifth time undefeated teams had met in Week 7 or later, and the winner of the previous four all made the Super Bowl.
“We feel we have a really good football team,” Roethlisberger said. “We feel we can be really special … That’s going to be a short-lived happiness because we know what’s coming next.”
What comes next? A matchup with the rival Ravens.
“We are perfect from a record standpoint, and so we respect that,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. “We realize that we’ve got AFC North ball on next week on the road. We’re going to a group that has seven days’ advantage on us, so there’s a lot for us to be urgent about.”
Benny Snell Jr. added a 1-yard TD run, and Ray-Ray McCloud set up a touchdown with a 57-yard punt return. Pittsburgh scored at least 26 points for a sixth straight game to tie a stretch in 2015 for the longest in franchise history.
The Steelers were without cornerback Mike Hilton, one of their best blitzers, not that the NFL’s No. 2 defense in both yards and points allowed missed him much. Pittsburgh outgained Tennessee 362-292 and held the NFL’s second-best scoring offense under 31 points for the first time since the opening week of the season.
But the Titans had won four of their first five by rallying in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime, and they appeared ready to add another.
Ryan Tannehill hit A.J. Brown on a short pass that the receiver took to the end zone for a 73-yard TD in the third quarter. Jayon Brown picked off a batted pass, setting up Gostkowski. Then Derrick Henry capped a 12-play drive with a 1-yard TD with 10:13 left to set up the late drama.
The Titans had the chance for another late win after Amani Hooker intercepted Roethlisberger’s pass to Smith-Schuster in the back of the end zone with 2:35 left. It was Roethlisberger’s third of the game, which Tennessee turned into only a field goal.
Gostkowski had won the first three games this season for Tennessee with late field goals.
“It was a gut punch to see that kick go wide right,” Tannehill said. “Had a ton of confidence going out there that Stephen was going to nail that kick. Unfortunately, obviously, it was a little bit wide.”
Gostkowski said the kick was headed down the middle until it faded right late.
“Just very disappointed to let the team down like that,” Gostkowski said. “I was confident going out there but didn’t get it done.”
Pittsburgh dominated early with a 161-1 edge in total offense before the Titans’ second offensive possession. The Steelers led 24-7 at halftime.
Roethlisberger and the Steelers scored a touchdown on their opening drive for the first time in 23 games, going 75 yards over 16 plays. Roethlisberger had his 1-yard TD pass to James Conner wiped out by penalty so he hit Johnson for an 11-yard TD and a 7-0 lead.
Snell Jr. capped the Steelers’ second drive for a 14-0 lead.
Big fine for Titans: The NFL has fined the Titans $350,000 for violating protocols leading to the league’s first COVID-19 outbreak during the season, a person familiar with the discipline told The Associated Press.
The Titans had 24 people, including 13 players, test positive for COVID-19 between Sept. 24 and Oct. 11. The outbreak led the NFL to postpone two Tennessee games and the rescheduling of a game against Pittsburgh from Oct. 4 to Sunday and the second against Buffalo from Oct. 11 to Oct. 13.
Injuries: Steelers defensive end Chris Wormley was hurt early in the fourth. Johnson went to the sideline after a key third-down catch late in the game with what he called a bruised ankle. He missed last week’s game with a back injury.
Titans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney hurt his left knee early in the third quarter but returned. Titans cornerback Kristian Fulton hurt a knee late in the first half.
Sack streak: Pittsburgh came in with an NFL-high 24 sacks and had two more, extending its streak to 63 straight games with at least one sack. That’s the longest active streak in the league and second-longest in NFL history – Tampa Bay went 69 straight games with at least one sack from Oct. 10, 1999, to Nov. 9, 2003. But they did snap a streak of six straight games with at least three or more sacks that dated to the 2019 season finale and had tied for longest in franchise history.
Third-down woes: The Titans came in with the NFL’s worst defense on third down, and they allowed Pittsburgh to convert their first seven. The Steelers finished 13 of 18 for a 72% conversion rate.
Steelers: Visit Baltimore in a game rescheduled because of the Titans’ outbreak with the Ravens coming off their bye.
Titans: Visit Cincinnati in their first road game since Sept. 27.